Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is O’Farrell’s take on ‘what might have happened’ around the death of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet. It’s her first foray into historical fiction and an ambitious choice of subject matter, but she pulls it off triumphantly with this poignant tale of grief, love and motherhood.
The first half of the book is told on two time planes. One, the day on which eleven-year-old Hamnet dies, told hour by hour – almost minute by minute. It is quiet, immediate, tense and terrifying. The other, flashbacks to the girlhood of his mother Agnes, the young Latin master she falls in love with – drawn to him because ‘he has more in his heart than anyone else’ – his irascible father, her unkind stepmother and, later, the birth of their daughter Susanna and twins Judith and Hamnet.
The backdrop is rural Warwickshire where people keep hens and pigs, gossip in the village alehouses, get sick, fall pregnant, give birth and ply their trades as millers, glovers and farmers. The writing is lyrical and nature-infused – the honey Agnes collects, for example, is ‘slow as sap, orange-gold, scented with the sharp tang of thyme and the floral sweetness of lavender.’
It has a wide sweep too, telling of the stews and playhouses of London where Agnes’ husband starts to make his name; and also of trade across Africa and Europe, where alongside their exotic wares sailors and merchants also carry something deathly back to the shores of England: bubonic plague. The final section covers what happens after the terrible event, and this is the pain of bereavement as raw as you will ever read.
Although Hamnet is the central figure around whom the narrative is built, this is much more the story of Agnes (Anne) Hathaway – a sensitive and strong woman, a woman of hawks and bees, herbs and healing, but whose affinity with the natural world, fierce love for her children and utter confidence that she can foretell the future cannot help her save her son. It is about how she is undone by grief, and also how this grief threatens to unravel their lives – until it is refashioned into something shocking but beautiful by her equally devastated husband.
Little is known about Shakespeare’s life, or the man himself, but somehow and even without ever naming him (he is variously the husband, father, brother) Maggie O’Farrell puts words into his mouth that are completely convincing and completely moving while at the same time holding off from building him into anything more than a background presence. It’s a brilliant elaboration around one documented event, Hamnet’s early death, with Shakespearean themes dropped in from time to time (twins, mistaken identity, ghosts, wood sprites, Venetian merchants, the famous second best bed) shot through with themes of love, grief and loss:
How can he live without her? He cannot. It is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain. Tears are appearing on her cheeks now, like silver seeds, as if by magic. He knows they are his, falling from his eyes on to her face, but they could just as easily be hers.
I’m a huge O’Farrell fan and although I wasn’t convinced by her 2016 novel, This Must Be the Place, I loved Hamnet. It has a lot of the pain of After You’d Gone; the lived-in wisdom of her memoir I am, I am, I am and some of the historical leaps in time of Esme Lennox.
However, I really wasn’t ready for the incredibly prescient plague aspect (‘He wears that mask because he thinks it will protect him,’ she says. ‘From the pestilence?’ His mother nods. ‘And will it?’ His mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.’) so if you’re not either then perhaps leave this one until we have a vaccine for you know what.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press, 384 pages.